Qualifiers in Games – The Ultimatum & the Forbidden Fruit

Written by Alex Harkey

We’ve been talking about qualifiers recently which are mechanisms and requirements in games that players must satisfy in order to have a chance to win. In part one of this series we covered the category of comparative qualifiers which included games like High Society, where the player who has spent the most money is eliminated just before final scoring, and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, where the player who has the most corruption is thrown to the crocodiles.

In this article we’re going to talk about the other major category called “Absolute Qualifiers”. When we previously covered games that use comparative qualifiers, we looked at how players are actively compared on a criteria such as corruption or money spent and one or more players are guaranteed to be eliminated each game.

By comparison, absolute qualifiers don’t tether the players together and everyone gets to run their own race and succeed or fail the expectations set before them. As a result, in these games it is sometimes possible for any number of players to be eliminated for failing to achieve their individual goals. Because of their independent nature, absolute qualifiers may not come into effect every game, but they still carry the thrill and risk of being eliminated.

Absolute Qualifiers – The Ultimatum

Our first group of absolute qualifiers are those that tell players “you must do this to be eligible to win“.

We opened part one of this series with High Society. Not only is High Society probably a prototypical example of a game with a qualifier, but Reiner Knizia may be the original M. Night Shyamalan because as we’re going to find this series, Dr. Knizia uses qualifiers as rules twists in games more often than you’d think, and never in the same way twice. We started part one of qualifiers with a classic Knizia game with simple rules and a simple qualifier and it seems appropriate to do it again with Quo Vadis.

Quo Vadis? is a pure negotiation game set in Rome where each player takes control of eight senator pawns and spends most turns advancing them through committees while earning laurels at various progress points along the way. The qualifier is that only players who have at least one Senator in the Inner Sanctum by the end of the game may compare the number of laurels they have collected – anyone else is eliminated. The player who has collected the most laurels is declared the winner.

Pictured: the Inner Sanctum
Photo by Boardgamegeek.com
reviewer EndersGame.
Used with permission.

Quo Vadis? is probably a peculiar example to open with because absolute qualifiers are mostly independent outcomes; whether I make it across the finish line in a race largely doesn’t impact if you will and that does generally ring true here as well. The interactive element is that players are largely reliant on one another for approval to advance their Senators to the next step along the path to the Inner Sanctum. Relying on your competition is a tricky balancing act and while the fear of being left out of the Inner Sanctum is justified, it doesn’t tend to happen nearly as often as you’d think.

The game is an older Knizia title that has never scaled between player counts particularly well and that tends to take some of the bite out of the qualifier in the game. There are always exactly five spaces in the Inner Sanctum and the game ends immediately when the fifth Inner Sanctum spot becomes filled. As a result, the risk of being left on the outside of the Inner Sanctum looking in is really only likely at five players, and on rare occasions at four. A fairly similar qualifier is used in the game Gùgōng.

Gùgōng takes place during the Ming dynasty where players interact with six interconnected areas to score points for doing things like building the Great Wall and collecting jade. Similar to Quo Vadis, every player has an envoy meeple that moves up a track and must reach the Palace at the top of the track before the end of the game or else that player’s score becomes zero.

About a year ago I showed up at a gaming convention and a good friend was finishing up the final turn of Gùgōng where he was being taught by some other friendly gamers. As the players finished up their final turns I silently watched in horror as the well-intentioned teacher had led the group astray – travel tiles which are supposed to be face-up had been face-down all game, the supply of jade had been restocked several times and several other rules mistakes had dramatically changed the spirit of the game. One thing that stood out was that two players hadn’t bothered to move their envoy to the top of the palace track at all and some of the post-game chatter included comments like “that central palace track doesn’t seem to matter much”.

Photo by Stephanie Verbeure.
Used with permission.

Of course that palace track does matter, but this observation comes back to me from time to time as I’ve been thinking about qualifiers and how they affect the games they are present in. A qualifier allows a designer to emphasize and amplify one singularly important act in a game and it usually makes sense to elevate one thing on the basis of thematic significance. Whether it is eliminating a player for going broke in a game about fiscal responsibility or being shut out of the inner sanctum of the Roman Senate in a game of political negotiation, these are thematic tests and assigning an extremely high cost to it seems appropriate.

Gùgōng’s palace track is probably one of the least compelling qualifiers we’ve seen in this series but it does still have a purpose. Every player has an envoy meeple and, unlike Quo Vadis, your ability to reach the top of the track is limited only by the amount of effort you put into it. But therein lies the unforeseen tension; everyone assumes they’ll get there eventually and if you get a bit too comfortable with all the other areas that offer lucrative scoring opportunities, you might find that you let your candle burn out before you ever get the chance to present it to the Emperor.

Another example of this kick-the-can style of qualifier is Edo, a game in which players are trying to satisfy their Shogun by building castles, houses and markets all across medieval Japan. The game is full of interesting mechanisms but the qualifier is that a player has to build at least one house in Edo before the game ends. It’s a relatively simple task, but like Gùgōng, almost everything else is more attractive in the game. If other players are also building early and often and you aren’t careful, other players might block you out of Edo if you procrastinate on building in the game’s namesake location.

One big strength of qualifiers is that they tend to act as a temptation that pulls players in a different direction from the primary goal: maximizing your score. As long-time fans of Vital Lacerda, Escape Plan does exactly that with the premise of pulling off the perfect crime and completing it by making the great escape.

In Escape Plan, players have recently pulled off their grand heist and are trying to get out of the city with as much money as possible. During the game, players are carefully navigating the city to pick up their stolen loot while avoiding police and gradually gaining information about their exit location. The gameplay is all about maximizing the money you retrieve, while carefully positioning yourself to escape when the time comes. Anyone who fails to escape the city is unable to win the game and the cost to escape goes up $5k for each person who has already left town so there is a real risk to overstaying your welcome.

Android: Infiltration has a very similar “get rich and get out” heist theme with a bit more push-your-luck blended into the design. On each turn of the game players move from one floor to the next, higher into a skyscraper searching for valuable data among the hidden rooms that lay ahead. Throughout the game alarms are being tripped and a threat level continues to rise. When the threat level reaches 99 anyone still inside the complex is eliminated.

The threat level is a strong implementation for a qualifier because it gives a ongoing status update to players as to what the risk is for continuing further into the building. Players regularly choose whether to retreat toward the exit or continue deeper into the complex and the right answer is rarely obvious.

Image use courtesy of Vladimir S.

Android: Infiltration adds an interesting lift to the escape idea because the possibility always exists that if players venture further into the complex they may stumble upon the executive elevator which allows for a second route to escape. While more risk-averse players might begin their retreat out of the complex early, a fearless player might continue onward not knowing if the executive elevator card is even in the game this time around.

Escape Plan and Android: Infiltration have an interesting push-and-pull dynamic that is present in many games that use a qualifier; players want to hang around and score as much as possible, but they still need to get out in time. The qualifier is a natural counter weight that establishes balance and stability to a push your luck game or an auction game like High Society. It can be easy to get lost in the thrill of putting up a high score or giving up everything for a chance to win, but these games often reward a more patient, measured approach where you shouldn’t give up everything, only a little bit less than your neighbor at the table.

Sometimes you have to escape the city, but in Fortuna, you have to finish inside the city gates of Rome in order to reach final scoring. Players move along a linear track of 15 spaces and as soon as one player reaches the center of Rome (space 15 of 15), the round is finished out and the gates of Rome are closed. Anyone who failed to make it inside the gates of the city (space 10 of 15) metaphorically has the door slammed in their face twice, as they are also left on the outside looking in while the remaining players count their scores within the safety of the city walls.

Image use courtesy of Henk Rolleman

Fortuna is an unusual citizen among games with qualifiers because players have control over the pace of the game and ultimately determine when the game ends. If your friend across the table is taking their sweet time to convert resources into more resources and turning water into wine, you can pick up the pace and make a run for the walls of the city. Even though every player is on a different road that leads to Rome, it is easy to forget in this game that some people may never get there.

If this sounds vaguely familiar as a concept, it very closely resembles the endgame scenario of Clank! Players are delving deeper and deeper into the dungeon for the lavish wealth hidden within, but they also want to keep an eye on their opponents, because as soon as someone turns back and makes a break for the exit, the game is dangerously close to its conclusion.

Not unlike Fortuna, the board of Clank! has distinct areas and players have to get an artifact and get at least out of the deepest parts of the dungeon in order to score at the end of the game. If a player loses all of their health points before they retrieve an artifact and/or before they have gotten above ground, they are left for dead and forgotten by history. If a player gets above ground and all the way back out to where they started, they earn a bonus.

A lot of absolute qualifiers are oriented around key locations and making a complete round trip. Both Expedition: Northwest Passage and The Cave task players with exploring an area and returning back to the original launch point before the end of the game. In both cases players earn points for exploring far and wide but in those efforts you always run the risk of getting frozen in the Arctic or spelunking one cavern too far. If a player doesn’t make it back to the starting area before the end of the game they score nothing.

If you want to run in the boots of Indiana Jones and get out of caves, then The Adventurers: The Temple of Chac has players relive the famous scene of Harrison Ford running from the giant boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Players want to escape the temple with the most valuable artifacts and to do that they’ll have to go out of their way to collect treasures while avoiding pitfalls. In a thematically appropriate conclusion to the game, if the boulder reaches the entrance to the temple before you do, you’re sealed inside and do not score your treasures.

The Adventurers is another peculiar entry for this list because players can also succumb to the usual death traps of a mysterious temple and die at any point during the game. As they usually do, this boulder doesn’t stop for player funerals and it will just keep on rolling toward its next victim. Interestingly, when you do die the game lets you re-spawn with a “second life” and if you lose that one too, well, then you probably weren’t going to win this relatively short game anyway.

DungeonQuest is a 1980’s classic with an optional set of rules for re-spawning because this is a game where treasure seekers die all the time and in the most unluckiest of ways. The game has been updated through several editions and the game uses a combat system where players fight monsters while trying to find and collect treasure. If a player doesn’t make it to a castle tower in one of the four corners of the board before the end of the game’s 26-30 turn limit they lose regardless of how much treasure they have.

DungeonQuest is one of the few games in this topic that bridge both qualifiers and conventional player elimination. Combat in the game is set up as player vs dungeon and as the adventurers start falling in battle, the game uses a very 1980’s solution of having eliminated players take over as the dungeon. One of the oddities of DungeonQuest is that players die so incredibly often that there might be only one survivor and frequently no survivors at all, so the challenge of escaping the dungeon is sometimes determined more by being lucky than being good as compared to some of these other games.

Players in Cthulhu Wars take control of factions and begin the game with six tasks that might consist of anything from controlling certain regions of the board to spending a certain number of resources. After successfully completing a task, a player covers up that task on their player board with a spell book which also gives the player a special ability for the remainder of the game.

The tasks in Cthulhu Wars are a fun reward system that incentivizes players to perform specific actions to unlock unique benefits, but the ultimate reward is becoming eligible to win the game. If a player hasn’t completed all six spell books, they cannot win, and technically if the game ends without anyone finishing all six, all players lose and the humans win.

Maybe the silliest emphasis of a theme is in Ave Caesar which is a fairly conventional racing game of playing cards to make three laps around the track first. In either your first or second lap you have to make a pit stop near the finish line to emphatically yell “Ave Caesar” who is watching from his throne. I love it when someone says the title of the movie game.

It seems like Reiner Knizia games always get reprinted but Das letzte Paradies [“The Last Paradise”] is sort of a “lost” Knizia game where players are trying to make a profit while developing tourist destinations on Earth’s last untouched island. The qualifier here is that, in order to win, players have to finish with more money than they started with, which would immediately eliminate the founders of recently failed streaming platform Quibi.

“Finish with more than you started with” is a great way to keep the ultimate goal of profitability ahead of heavily gamified motives players usually have like “barely edge out second place when admittedly no one at the table created anything resembling a successful business venture”. I always appreciate an economic game that makes a win feel like an achievement and actually being profitable in Das Letzte Paradies is a big deal as even the rules talk about how realistic it is for an entire table of players to fail this objective.

One more Knizia title that can’t go unmentioned is the my favorite of his tile-laying trio, Samurai. Players in the game are trying to gain support of three unaligned factions in the game by capturing the plurality of pieces belonging to those factions.

Samurai has one of the most interesting final scoring systems and the qualifier is that a player has to have control of at least one of the three factions to be in the running at the end of the game. That means at least one person is eliminated at the end of a four player game and it isn’t uncommon to lose someone at three players either.

Absolute Disqualifiers – The Forbidden Fruit

Our second group is what I’ll call the “Forbidden Fruit” of qualifiers. If absolute qualifiers force a requisite goal on players in order to win, this group of games is the inverse: you may go anywhere and do just about anything, but if you do this one specific thing you cannot win.

Ponzi Scheme is a set collection and pseudo-negotiation style trading game centered around one of America’s favorite pastimes and it has a simple premise: be as fiscally irresponsible as you want, just don’t be the first player to go broke. 

Mirroring the initial motivation of your friend from high school caught up in an MLM scheme, players in Ponzi Scheme are converting money into investment products with the hope that those investments might actually be worth something. The game quickly turns into an exercise of treading water as early debts must be repaid for the perpetuity of the game. The game ends when a player can’t pay their debt obligations in a round and that player is eliminated.

Image use courtesy of Doctor Meeple

Ponzi Scheme highlights another function of qualifiers in games: qualifiers can add value where it might otherwise not be. The investments players acquire are worth victory points and as the game goes on the money players use has decreasing utility. In a system with a qualifier of “Don’t go broke”, your last dollar is your most important dollar. In reality your victory conditions in Ponzi Scheme are something like “have the most VP and at least $1” but that would be a comparably underwhelming rules presentation. Phrasing your objectives is important and eliminating the first player to go broke both creates thematically significant stakes and keeps the in-game value of holding on to money high even as its economic value dwindles.

Struggle of Empires is a soon to be republished Martin Wallace classic where players take control of European powers of the time period and battle for control of Europe and abroad to become the greatest empire – a title of historical dominance determined by slowly tallying and comparing victory point totals at the end of the game.

During the game, players must manage their empire’s level of unrest, a resource that players take every time they borrow gold, lose units in battle or acquire certain tiles during the game. At the end of the game any player with 20 or more unrest has their score reduced to zero. What is particularly interesting is that if no elimination takes place, the players with the most and second most unrest are dinged with scoring penalties anyway.

Image use courtesy of Łukasz

One attribute of success in qualifiers is sort of an “all or nothing” approach where players obviously want to avoid being eliminated, but beyond that there are no further consequences. Struggle of Empires is so heavily tied to the unrest mechanism and I would guess that playtesting found that a player going beyond twenty unrest led to opportunities to break the game such as purposefully borrowing extra gold expecting that you’re going to receive the penalty for the most unrest anyway. If that is the reality, it would seem that inclusion of a qualifier isn’t intended to necessarily eliminate players as much as keep the experience within certain boundaries of reasonableness.

Semi-Cooperative Games

Absolute disqualifiers are a relatively rare breed in general but by far the largest cluster are a group of games that are frequently described as “semi-cooperative”. The term of “semi-coop” is a murky stream to cross as it is frequently used to describe “one vs many” style games, games with a traitor, and games with negotiation or strong positive player interaction.

The type of games we’re focusing on for this topic are probably better described as “competitive collaboration”; games where players compete and one player is declared a winner, but there is also at least one “everyone loses” condition if the players aren’t careful or get a little too greedy.

A popular example is Archipelago where players are colonizing lands and collecting resources, but the game ends immediately and everyone loses if the indigenous population on those lands reaches a certain threshold to start a rebellion. Historically, rebellions haven’t turned out great for colonialism nor does it turn out any better for the players.

These games effectively have “0-1” winners based on the group and how the group gets along, but these game designs tend to miss more than they hit because they tend to awkwardly pair two things that don’t go well together:

  • Player prioritization of self-interest in an effort to win
  • A doomsday clock mechanism that turns into a game of chicken

A game that rewards either one winner or collective defeat is inevitably going to be full of prisoner’s dilemmas and a sense of mutual extortion. When this combination of ideas works well it can lead to an interesting series of “pass the buck” strategic decisions where player urge their opponents to solve a dire situation. Where these games can go wrong is when a trailing player can’t win and they have an avenue to take everyone down with them.

I tend to think some of the games that handle shared-motivation the best are those with real world implications and we see it with games like CO2 and Terra, where players want to maximize their own score, but if the players collectively destroy the environment than no one truly wins.

Another thematic tie-in that seems to sell the concept of a collective loss is an era of historical transition like in Republic of Rome. Players in the game lead factions scheming for control of the Roman senate and to become the most powerful faction in Rome.

But Rome needs to survive in order for the winner to rule it and there are three ways the game can end immediately in a loss for everyone involved:

Image use courtesy of Duarte C.
  • War: Four or more active wars at the end of a combat phase.
  • Bankruptcy: The State treasury is unable to pay when required.
  • Revolt: A result of “People Revolt” occurs in the population phase.

The Republic of Rome is fascinating in that it has multiple victory conditions and multiple ways the game can end in a collective loss. The experience of the game is equal parts playing and interrupting rules disputes with a filibuster of reading the rulebook aloud. I imagine for those who win the game the thrill of victory feels twice as good, because the reality is they somehow won and managed not to lose at the same time.

There are a bunch more games that use an “everyone loses” absolute disqualifier and I’m running out of space to cover them all. While I’d like to talk about Martin Wallace’s AuZtralia here, it would bring me dangerously close to the limit on mentions of the Cthulhu mythos in an article and I’d be solely responsible for summoning the Old Ones. We’re almost through with 2020, let’s allow that possibility to rest.

Conclusion

We led into this topic thinking about how qualifiers are used and where they add the most value in games and I think each type of qualifier has a purpose in game design.

Comparative Qualifiers we covered in part one consistently eliminate one or more players at the end of the game. These games tend to work best with the qualifier being the centerpiece of the design.

The comparative qualifier can build tension in an otherwise solid game and it gives players the added thrill of hitting a moving target – you don’t pay the ultimate price as long as you’re not last. But these games also vary wildly in how much control a player has over avoiding elimination and so I think they work best in games that play in under an hour that also have a relatively low degree of randomness. They also need a sufficient number of players to allow one elimination to offer an appropriate level of threat. That means they don’t make sense at two players and work best with a ratio of around 1 eliminated player per 3 players in the game.

Absolute qualifiers don’t have the same limitations because these conditions are always under control of the players, so they are suitable for any duration of a game and any player count. The strength of these qualifiers is that they can emphasize one singularly important aspect of the game with a life-or-death element.

I also think a huge opportunity exists by building a benchmark into existing games like we see in Knizia’s Das letzte Paradies. We’re in an age where new games get played less and less and we might only play a game once before moving on, whether we really grasp it or not. If games have a logical benchmark where a player has to meet or exceed it in order to be eligible to win, first-time players might gain a sense of how deep the game might be and curious players can feel a sense of achievement when they finally reach the top of the mountain.

While exploring this topic I came across nearly a hundred games that used ideas similar to qualifiers that didn’t quite meet the definition to be included here. I’m going to cover the best of these ideas in some bonus content on our Patreon in the next few weeks.

As always, thanks for reading!

Special thanks to the talented photographers and our amazing Patreon Supporters including David Satterfield, Vincent James, Brady Lang and Cardboard Edison for their continued support!
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4 comments on “Qualifiers in Games – The Ultimatum & the Forbidden Fruit

  1. Cliff Reynolds

    Thanks for the topic. Your conclusion has me thinking, how does one insert a qualifier to give the game “a sense of achievement” in your mind? Like what does that look like, a scoring threshold?

    1. Alex Harkey

      It’s a great question, Cliff. There probably isn’t a “plug-in” option available to game designers, it is always going to depend on the particular game design in-progress.

      If a scoring threshold is what I’m imagining, I don’t think adding an arbitrary scoring requirement and forcing players to exceed 200 points for their win to “count” is a step in a good direction. Most games with a “score the most victory points” objective probably aren’t a good fit and I think it really comes down to thematic significance. If a game is about building rockets, maybe the game should end after three players have successfully launched rockets, and those players can score because they’ve successfully met a deadline. If a game is about climbing a mountain while scoring points along the way maybe you should have to reach the top in order to be in contention to win.

      An important part of thematic integration is having thematic follow-through on behalf of the mechanics. Anything that ties in the importance of theme with winning has an opportunity to be a step in an interesting direction.

  2. Glenn Parks

    “[…] players have to finish with more money than they started with, which would immediately eliminate the founders of recently failed streaming platform Quibi.”

    You had me cracking up multiple times, thanks for the fun read!

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